Murray Farish once sat in the same desks his students now sit in as a Webster University student. Now, he has a published book and is a full time assistant English professor at Webster, teaching a variety of topics, such as creative writing fiction and American literature.
Farish published his first book “Inappropriate Behavior” in May 2014. He read passages from his book to a room of over 40 people on Thursday, Nov. 6 in the Pearson House. Farish’s students, former students, colleagues and some community members filled the room to capacity. Some stood outside trying to listen in. Webster’s English department hosts readings multiple times a year where authors from across the nation read their work.
Director of Creative Writing David Clewell said it is uncommon for a Webster faculty member to read their work at a reading.
“Inappropriate Behavior” is a collection of short human-interest fiction stories. It is set in cities throughout America and describes the struggles and achievements of being an American. There are some stories that go back to the 1950s and 1970s, but most of them take place during the time period Farish lives in.
“I wanted to write a big American book,” Farish said. “I wanted to try to put at least a lot of what I think and believe about this country during the time I’ve been here.”
Farish began writing some versions of his book in the early 2000s when he was in graduate school. He described the process by comparing it to the scientific method.
“You write that sentence down and you test it; ‘Does this seem like life to me?’” Farish said. “If it does, write another one. And at a certain point, you’ve got a story.”
As a writer, Farish was proudest of the title story for “Inappropriate Behavior” because it gave him inspiration for projects he wants to write in the future. It was one of the last things he finished for the book. It is also one of the biggest stories in the book in terms of length and the ideas it brings up.
He said it is about the struggles a young middle class couple faces in raising their emotionally unstable son after the husband is laid off during the Great Recession.
He said he took a narrative risk with the ending of the title story, a kind he said could have completely undercut the work. He said it was difficult to end the story in a narratively satisfying way, where there is realistic closure to the story.
“If I can’t do narratively satisfying, at least I could do polarizing,” Farish said.
Teacher, friend, and colleague
Clewell was once Farish’s professor. The two kept in regular contact with each other after Farish graduated and became friends.
“David’s my first reader and not just because he is my friend and his opinion is important to me on a human level, but because of how much he’s read and how much he knows about what makes literature and stories work,” Farish said. Clewell read early drafts of Inappropriate Behavior and had discussions with Farish about the book.
“He’s his own toughest critic, and that’s not just attitude,” Clewell said. “He doesn’t let a story out of his psychic grasp until it’s absolutely as fluid and mechanically clean as he can make it.”
Clewell offered him the opportunity to teach a creative writing workshop as an adjunct in fall of 2003. Then, Farish picked up more classes to teach as the semesters went by. He said he designed around a dozen different courses, and that led a full-time position.
Senior English major Heather Bartel read Farish’s book at the beginning of summer 2014.
“It was all just really fascinating, a little bit obscure and funny. I enjoyed it,” Bartel said.
Bartel first had Farish as a professor last year. She said she enjoyed having Farish as a professor and learned a lot in his creative workshop class.
“Sometimes, he crushes your spirits, but it’s necessary because you learn so much from it,” Bartel said. “But it’s always done in a positive way. I feel like I’ve improved as a fiction writer because of my workshops with him.”
Studying at Webster
Farish became a student at Webster in 1996. He wanted to go back to school and planned to look for the cheapest school to attend. But on a Saturday afternoon, his wife saw an ad for a transfer day at Webster. He decided to go and met English professor and department chair Reta Madsen.They talked for about an hour about the students and writers at Webster and what Farish could accomplish there.
“I came home and told my wife ‘I don’t care what it costs, I don’t care what I have to do, I’m going to that school and I’m going to study with that woman,’” Farish said.
He pursued an English degree and took every class Madsen offered over the next two years. He chose to be an English major because he liked to read, but didn’t pursue a writing degree because he thought it was more of a dream than a reality.
“I didn’t think that writers were people like me,” Farish said.
However, that perspective changed after he arrived at Webster. After he saw the published work of his creative writing professors, he thought it was something he could do.
“As you take their classes you realize that writers are not these aliens from another world. They are human beings with good enough brains and good enough hearts to work very hard at what they do,” Farish said.
Farish said he appreciates that the English Department invited him to read his story and said he was humbled by the amount of people that showed up.
“One thing about this place (Webster), they know how to make a guy feel loved,” Farish said. “There’s an extent to which Webster can overdo this ‘we’re all one big happy family’ thing, but there’s also some extent to where it can’t be overdone, and that really felt like one of those moments.”
Murray Farish is Chairman of the Publication Board, a faculty senate committee that oversees The Journal.